If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere.
It’s those words from the iconic Frank Sinatra song, “New York, New York,” that play as runners begin their 26.2-mile adventure to the finish line of the New York City Marathon. And by the time runners reach that final mile marker in Central Park, they really will feel that way (hopefully).
The New York City Marathon is on Sunday, November 6 this year, with a course that’s every bit as challenging as it is breathtaking. Today, the race is the largest marathon in the world, boasting more than 50,000 runners, weaving through all five boroughs of the Big Apple, bolstered by one million spectators. (Fun fact: In 1970, just 127 participants entered to run the inaugural four laps of Central Park.)
Despite its difficulty, it is possible to PR in New York — with the right course strategy. And amidst the intense race day crowds, it’s also possible to just find the right place to spectate, if you’re enjoying the race from the wings. Lucky for you, our insiders’ guide will help you nail marathon day, no matter which side of the barricades you’re on.
NYC Marathon Course Preview: Before It Begins
Runners: Your race strategy starts before you even get to the start line, says Bart Yasso, Chief Running Officer of Runner’s World. “It’s all about staying warm. Some people are out there in the runner’s village for up to three hours.” Plus, you’ll stand on the bridge in your corral for another 25 minutes or so (hello, wind). Those old, ratty sweats your significant other wants you to get rid of? Wear ‘em to the start and ditch them once you get moving. (Don’t worry — clothes left at the start of the race are donated to charity.)
Spectators: While your runners are shivering in the Start Village in Staten Island, it’s time for you to map out your day. Figure out which subways you’ll need to take, buy your MetroCard, and devise a plan. You won’t be able to see your people until they’re back in Brooklyn.
After the Start Gun
Runners: “The start of the New York City Marathon is epic,” says John Honerkamp, a coach with the New York Road Runners, who’s run the course four times. The beginning is incredibly congested, but that’s actually a good thing, he says. “It will keep you from going out too fast, and you’ll get a lot of that time back later on in the race.”
Most people also don’t realize the four percent incline of the Verazzano Bridge at the start, says Yasso. But what they also don’t realize is that the second mile has an equally sharp downhill. Take these first two miles easy, and then wait until mile 3 to start worrying about your pace.
Spectators: Luckily, mile 3 is also where spectators can start to look out for runners, in the Bay Ridge neighborhood of Brooklyn. Once you see your runner here, you’ll want to get on the subway to get to First Avenue in Manhattan to see your runner around mile 18 or 19.
Brooklyn, We Go Hard
Runners: You’ll spend eleven miles in Brooklyn — from mile 2 through 13. At the start, the course diverges into three slightly different paths, dependent on your corral placement at the start. (Don’t worry — they’re all 26.2 miles!) By mile 8, they’ll combine and stay that way for the rest of the race. “Unless you’re up front, the routes bottleneck a bit,” says Yasso, “but it’s not worth trying to weave to make up some extra time.”
As you run, you’ll hit a new neighborhood every few blocks, says Honerkamp. Why take the subway when you can see this much on foot? The route takes you through family-friendly Park Slope, picturesque Clinton Hill, edgy Williamsburg and more in the city’s largest borough.
As you run, look out for Brooklyn institutions like the Barclays Center and the Brooklyn Academy of Music. As you pass Bishop Loughlin Memorial High School in Fort Greene, listen carefully: They usually play the Rocky theme song.
Take some solace as you run through Queens — not only is your trip through this borough short, but it’s also relatively flat after the short bridge at mile 13. You’ll cherish this brief stretch before tackling the infamous Queensboro Bridge.
Both Yasso and Honerkamp agree that there’s a certain kind of peace and quiet on the bridge, as no spectators are allowed. “It’s just you and your fellow runners,” explains Honerkamp. “You can hear the breath and the footsteps of everyone before the storm of First Avenue.” Pro tip: if you need a bathroom break, the bank of Port-a-Potties under the Manhattan side of the Queensboro usually has the shortest lines.
Spectators: If you couldn’t get to Bay Ridge to spectate, 4th Avenue, Lafayette Avenue and Bedford Avenue all offer good vantage points for miles 4 through 13. And while your runner is making that lonely sojourn over the bridge, now’s your chance to get to First or Fifth Ave.
Manhattan State of Mind
Runners: Once you hit First Avenue, the energy is electric, says Honerkamp. “It seems like all one million-plus spectators are all there.” But this is where you need to tell yourself to slow down, he says. It’s difficult to combat the cheer-induced surge of energy, but it’s important to pace yourself.
First Avenue takes you from miles 16 to 19, so you might start to slow here. “When you get tired, it’s time to start focusing on your form,” according to Honerkamp. “Focusing on your form will keep you distracted from how tired you’re feeling.”
For mile 20, you’ll dip into the Bronx. For such a short trip, you’ll cross two bridges — one on either side. Continue to focus on your form to power through.
But before you know it, you’ll be back in Manhattan on Fifth Avenue. Enjoy the bands in the Bronx before you enter Harlem. “It’s a grind until mile 23,” says Honerkamp. “People don’t always realize this is a hill and your pace might slow 10-20 seconds per mile. But whatever you do — don’t look at the street signs, or you’ll just be counting down the streets.” It’s difficult here, but Yasso recommends feeding off the crowds.
Spectators: At miles 18 and 19, fans are sure to get a good spot thanks to thinner crowds above 96th Street. Plus, you’ll be supporting the runners when they really need it. After First Avenue, get over to Fifth Avenue to see your loved ones at one of the toughest points of the course.
The Home Stretch
Runners: Once you get to mile 23, you’ll be in Central Park. If you’ve run a smart race, you can pick up the pace here, according to Honerkamp. “Lots of people are slowing down, so you can just weave in and out of them. But be careful — people are delirious and going in and out all over the place here.” Think of crossing the finish line in a few miles, and how amazing that will feel. Be sure to take in the band set up in Columbus Circle just before you re-enter the park.
Spectators: Central Park South hugs the park for mile 25, and here’s a great stretch for spectators, too, to get one last chance to see runners without having to deal with the finish line madness. Looking for a good spot to meet your runner afterwards? A bar or restaurant on the Upper West Side is generally a good bet.
Runners: Those last .2 miles in the park are uphill, but the adrenaline will carry you through. “I think it’s hard,” says Honerkamp, “but other emotions come into play, and you won’t feel it as much.”
“My favorite part of the experience is being there and just hearing all these people speaking different languages, coming together to do the same thing,” says Yasso. “It’s as close to an Olympic experience as you’ll ever feel.”
Originally published October 2015. Updated October 2016.